The first time a foreign-made documentary sold out at the San Francisco International Film Festival program, several years ago, it was a huge deal. Now it’s neither unusual nor surprising. Americans are starved for information about other countries, and the savvy ones have learned to seek out documentaries—especially those made by filmmakers working in their own countries—for insights they can’t get anywhere else. To state the obvious, U.S. televison news reports are embarassingly short and superficial (unless the international crisis involves a missing jetliner), perhaps in recognition that the masses really don’t care what’s happening to anyone not named Kim or Lindsay.
I don’t profess to be any better informed than you, but I do think it’s important to watch documentaries for their form as well as their content. There is a craft and an art to nonfiction filmmaking that is frequently overlooked and underrated, and is itself a source of pleasure and meaning. The SFIFF, beginning Thursday and continuing through May 8, 2014, has consistently taken that position by not only presenting important stories, but innovative and poetic storytelling. To put it another way, man cannot live on content alone.
The disturbingly beautiful Spanish documentary Coast of Death (May 2 and 3 at the Kabuki, May 5 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley) opens with the nerve-jangling bite of a chainsaw and closes with a controlled fire. It is conceivable that Lois Patino’s riveting portrait of the famously picturesque, dangerous and despoiled area of Galicia isn’t an environmental disaster film. Despite its myriad aural and visual references to shipwrecks, oil spills, felled trees, mining and wind farming, Coast of Death could simply be a delineation of the border where the utilization of resources becomes exploitation. Or perhaps that’s a distinction without a difference.
Open to a range of interpretations, and for that alone indubitably worth seeing, Coast of Death has people but no characters, and an expansive awareness of time but no chronology. The same can be said of the Indian film The Seventh Walk(Apr. 26 at the PFA and Apr. 29 and May 1 at the Kabuki), a 70-minute exercise in erasing the gulf between nature and its representation. The painter Paramjit Singh serves as inspiration, silent subject and posed foil for filmmaker Amit Dutta’s occasionally entrancing, occasionally mind-numbing attempt to bring still lifes to life via zooms, pans and tracking shots. The Seventh Walk left me contemplating the redundancy of making pictures of nature when one's life is surrounded by it; somehow I don’t think that’s Dutta’s goal.
These films inhabit a different realm than the typical American character-driven documentary with its bow-tied endpoint. The closest cousin to a doc with a dedicated protagonist is Talal Derki’s deeply courageous Return to Homs (May 4 and 7 at the Kabuki and May 6 at PFA), an irreplaceable blood-and-rubble document of the outgunned domestic resistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A young, aspiring goaltender named Basset stands up first as an activist, then as a militant and a rebel. “Peaceful resistance is futile,” he asserts at a crucial juncture. “We’re dealing with people who do not fear God.”
Basset provides heat and heart and a great deal of heroism, although one uses that word advisedly in a film as suffused with defeat and death as this one. It’s unimaginable—until you see it in front of you—that a city could be destroyed by tanks and mortars in the 21st century, even if it is unsurprising that a dictator would wage war on his own people. The flip side of The Square, last year’s splendid verité film that surfed the idealistic wave of the Egyptian revolution to and through its foundering, Return to Homs offers all the reality and none of the hope one might wish for. Sobering, yes, but highly recommended.
The emotional terrain is measurably less despairing in Three Letters From China (Apr. 29 at the Kabuki, May 3 at the PFA, and May 5 at New People Cinema in San Francisco), a triad of artfully constructed, open-ended portraits. Swiss filmmaker Luc Schaedler makes no pretense that the lives of his subjects stops when he departs; on the contrary, he invites us to contemplate what lies ahead for an elderly, lonely farming couple and their conflicted, hard-working children who live hundreds of kilometers away. And the 19-year-old big-city waitress who identifies as male more than female, and the aging elders of a village still recovering from the retributions and killings of the Cultural Revolution.
Schaedler doesn’t strive or strain for conclusions and morals, as he appears to be content with serving up slices of lives. Nonetheless, we infer that these aren’t isolated, discreet cases but in some ephemeral way representative of segments of the vast Chinese population. Similarly, French filmmaker Julie Bertuccelli’s immersive year in a French junior high school class for new immigrants, School of Babel, plays as both a glimpse of specific individuals and a window onto a larger phenomenon.
The tone is set by the opening musical notes, which evoke the lightheartedness of Michel Legrand’s 1960s scores and tip us off not to expect wrenching social drama. The kids seem to fall in the lower-middle of the economic ladder, though one assumes their families— from Ireland and Nigeria, Romania and Morocco, Venezuela and Belarus—must have had some resources to immigrate. But it’s not all crepes suzette, especially for the Chinese girl whose mother works long hours in a restaurant, or the Serbian-Jewish lad who spends a portion of his studying time completing the family’s extensive application request for asylum.
School of Babel (Apr. 27 and 28 at New People) achieves a compelling mood of intimacy and intensity by keeping the camera squarely on the curious faces of the adolescent students. If you’re looking for hope, aspiration and possibility, it’s right there. In fact, Bertuccelli’s goal might well have been to increase the tolerance of French viewers for new immigrants. Youthful talent, intelligence and enthusiasm is hard to resist.
For more information, visit www.sffs.org/festival-home/.